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9/11 Mesothelioma Death May be Tip of the Iceberg

9/11 mesothelioma death

The recent 9/11 mesothelioma death of a Pennsylvania man is probably just the tip of the iceberg of asbestos cancer cases related to the World Trade Center.

The World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001 created massive clouds of toxins across Manhattan. Asbestos was one of 2,500 contaminants in that cloud. Asbestos can cause lung cancer, asbestosis, pleural mesothelioma, and other conditions. 

Now, an EMT from Versailles, Pennsylvania has become one of the first to be labeled a 9/11 mesothelioma death. His death from pleural mesothelioma was recorded by the World Trade Center Health Program at Mount Sinai Medical Center.

Why the First 9/11 Mesothelioma Death Now?

Asbestos was a popular insulator and construction product additive at the time the Twin Towers were constructed. The World Trade Center contained an estimated four hundred tons of asbestos. 

When the towers collapsed, thousands of first responders and New Yorkers likely inhaled or swallowed asbestos fibers. 

Once asbestos enters the body, it stays there causing chronic low-level inflammation and irritation. It can take decades for mesothelioma to occur but once it does, it usually progresses quickly. Doctors have been anticipating a 9/11 mesothelioma death almost from Day 1. 

Michael Crane is medical director of the World Trade Center Health Program. The program tracks 9/11-related illnesses. Crane said this 9/11 mesothelioma death is likely to be the first of many lung cancer deaths in the coming decades. 

“I hope this will remain occasional and very rare, but we are all concerned about that pathway to lung cancer and mesothelioma,” Crane told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We think it’s going to continue to be part of the story. It’s something we must keep an eye on.” 

Mesothelioma Victim was a First Responder

The newly recorded 9/11 mesothelioma death was a 52-year-old former EMT. According to the Post-Gazette, Nick Ursta and his wife Margaret headed to ground zero within hours of the attack. 

They were stationed at a triage area within a mile of the World Trade Center. The Urstas were on the scene for three days with minimal protection. Nick Ursta received a mesothelioma diagnosis in January of 2018.

Most pleural mesothelioma cases occur in people who worked in a job that used asbestos. Tradespeople, Navy veterans, shipbuilders, and asbestos plant workers are among the most common mesothelioma patients. Most were exposed to asbestos over several years.

But the new 9/11 mesothelioma death happened after short-term, intense asbestos exposure. It highlights the danger of asbestos exposure in any amount over any length of time.

Asbestos-exposed people should have regular medical exams to monitor for early signs of mesothelioma. Some studies have even suggested that there may be a survival benefit to periodic CT scans for high-risk individuals.

More than 9,500 9/11 responders have been diagnosed with exposure-related cancers. An estimated 60,000 to 70,000 9/11 responders suffered the most concentrated asbestos exposure. They now face the highest risk for mesothelioma.


Templeton, David, “9/11 hero’s cancer death linked to ground zero exposure”, November 4, 2019, https://www.post-gazette.com/local/region/2019/11/04/nick-ursta-9-11-hero-dies-of-cancer-Ground-Zero-exposure-versailles/stories/201910300142

Never Forget Project, https://neverforgetproject.com/statistics

World Trade Center Health Program, https://www.cdc.gov/wtc/

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